"She is herself a poem": Caresse Crosby, feminine identity, and literary history.
Although many modernists rebelled against aesthetic tradition in their work, they often reinforced misogynistic social norms. Critics followed suit, instituting a gendered hierarchy of artistic production. As scholar Suzanne Clark has demonstrated, "[T]he modernist revolution turned away from ordinary language and everyday life," resulting in the "gendering of intellectuality" that devalued the feminine at the expense of a masculine experimental style (3). Other feminist scholars have recovered the work of many women erased by the modernist ambivalence that resulted in the "persistent gendering as feminine of that which is devalued" (Huyssen 53). Our understanding of modernism has expanded with scholarship on women writers and editors, salon culture, lesbian sexuality, and the role of gender within modernism. (3) In the act of recovering Crosby, we find a case study in the subversive potential of feminine performance during modernism and the sociohistorical conditions that interpreted that femininity. Kay Boyle described Crosby as "distressingly feminine" (qtd. in Conover, Caresse Crosby 14), but there is little doubt that Crosby's performance of the feminine was a source of power during her life. Yet this enactment of the feminine subsequently erased her substantial contributions to literary modernism.
Judith Butler's notion of performativity provides a lens for investigating how Crosby constituted a gendered identity. Gender operates as a circuit such that the effect of performing gender is to produce and maintain the regulatory practice of gender (Gender Trouble 24). Thus Crosby's performance of a stereotypically "feminine" role maintains the system by which she is evaluated and categorized. Subjects are not free to choose participation in this system; Butler explains, "The 'activity' of this gendering cannot, strictly speaking, be a human act or expression, a willful appropriation, and it is certainly not a question of taking on a mask" (Bodies that Matter 7). However, the inadequacy of the binary system creates a space for play. (4) If, as Butler contends, "[g]ender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts," then we can read Crosby's naming practices, appearance, poetry, and self-described behavior as the means through which she performed femininity (Gender Trouble 140). The modernist period was a time of changing ideas about women, and Crosby presents an interesting blend of the old and new. She was one part "Angel in the House," a consummate hostess who nurtured other artists, and one part "New Woman," sexually liberated and fully invested in a productive public life.
Unlike Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, and other better-known modernist women, Crosby was heterosexual and married. Although her marriage itself was in many ways unconventional, her sexuality and marital status place Crosby in a traditional feminine role. Her husband Harry's published diary, Shadows of the Sun, reveals his interpretation of the relationship in traditional terms, with Caresse as the feminine--beautiful, sexually desirable, and pure--to his masculine. This is evident in the terms he uses to describe their relationship: "What is sweeter than honey (Caresse) / What is stronger than a lion (Harry)" (228). (5) Although they could afford servants, she was his domestic angel. As Harry wrote in 1924, "The house without C was dirty and desolate, now it is bright and delicate. No more cold meals, no more untidiness, no more disorder" (58). In this stereotypical relationship, Caresse Crosby was "too pure and decent and refined" for the movie business, and Harry's role was to protect her: "We'll talk it over but I shouldn't let you go round with a movie crowd under any circumstances" (Harry Crosby, "Letter"). This purity extended to the sexual double standard. When, in response to Harry's infidelities, Caresse began to express a sexual independence, he wrote in his diary, "The shadow of a disaster C believing that woman is independent and the equal of man I believing that woman is dependent and the slave of man. Here is our Impasse" (186). This impasse was resolved by Harry's suicide with one of his lovers in 1929.
While Caresse Crosby did fulfill many of the traditional stereotypes of women, a closer reading of her work complicates any easy dichotomy. (6) In her modes of self-representation, Crosby represents the tension between femininity and the "modern" woman's rebellion. She is caught between the two poles described by Whitney Chadwick and Tirza True Latimer: "If feminine stereotypes continued to stigmatize women ... of the 1920s and 1930s as intellectually limited, morally and physically weak, capricious, and derivative, characterizations of modern women--even by their detractors--often emphasized their exceptional intellectual prowess, independence, strength, reliability, creativity, and entrepreneurial zeal" (xxi). Thus Crosby's letters could be described by writer and friend Kay Boyle as "bits of powder puff and a lovely smell," an innocuous feminine facade, but in her business dealings as a publisher, Crosby could frighten Joyce and negotiate with Hemingway to obtain the European rights to his The Torrents of Spring (qtd. in Conover, Caresse Crosby 14). By perfecting the performance of feminine norms as loving wife, vibrant hostess, willing sexual partner, and self-effacing nurturer, Crosby operated within the normative heterosexual matrix. But taking on an ultrafemme identity imbued her with a subversive power: wearing the unthreatening cloak of the beautiful and flighty woman allowed for some decidedly unconventional behavior, including the agency inherent in her own business affairs. Indeed, Crosby believed that "a woman without a touch of bitchery is like milk without Vitamin D" (The Passionate Years 109). By looking at Crosby's autobiography, naming practices, poetry, and work with the Black Sun Press during the 1920s and 1930s, we can begin to unpack the complex work of gender in her lived experience and literary legacy.
Analyzing the operations of gender and sexuality on a historical figure is a tricky business and must entail a careful reading of the available written evidence. Of primary interest is Crosby's 1953 autobiography, The Passionate Years. The act of writing autobiography is itself performative, with "autobiographical occasions as dynamic sites for the performance of identities constitutive of subjectivity" (Smith and Watson 143). A close reading of The Passionate Years, from its title to its blurring of details, reveals the careful construction of a highly feminized persona. The work enacts a stereotypical femininity in its domestic details and breezy tone. Crosby describes herself in relation to others, a trait associated with a gendered form of identity construction based on interdependence and community.
In her study of several female modernists' autobiographies, Nina Henriette van Gessel argues that this feminine presentation was strategic, that "[t]he only way the women could sell--literally and figuratively--their autobiographies to readers and thus generate awareness of their professional achievements was by flaunting their public personae" (22). Thus Crosby's written presentation was an astute reading of the literary marketplace of the 1950s. Presenting herself within prescribed social norms, such as depicting her literary activity within a social or domestic space, alleviated any sense of transgression into male territory. While catering to readers hungry for gossip about the Paris expatriates may have aided in the publication of Crosby's autobiography, critics have failed "to recognize that its depictions of domesticity and stereotypes of femininity encode claims of the author's indispensability to modernism" (Gessel 117). Reviewers dismissed the text as "badly organized" (Mayberry 10), a "[t]histledown autobiography of one of the lost generation's lambs, it frolics along at a tumbling clip never settling to earth or significance.... Mrs. Crosby recounts life from a very feminine vantage point, giving freshness to the oft-told" (Pike 19-20). Despite the widespread reach of feminist criticism, even recent scholars fail to see the gender bias in their own judgments. For instance, her husband Harry's biographer Geoffrey Wolff cattily snipes, "In her autobiography Caresse uses the kinds of symbols and social shorthand to draw herself that one gossip-ridden matron might use to draw and quarter another matron while at tea with a third" (83). These interpretations reveal a continued denigration of the feminine that have led to Crosby's "unwarranting" (Clark 1).
A closer reading of the autobiography, with supplement from the archival record, reveals how Crosby negotiated gender as a writer and publisher as well as a wife, lover, and hostess. The story of her self-naming provides an initial glimpse into the use of gender norms in Crosby's self-fashioned identity. Patriarchy identifies women through their male association, either their "maiden" (father's) or their husband's surname. Born Mary Phelps Jacobs in New York in 1892, she was known by the diminutive Polly (or "Pollee" to Harry). With marriage to her first husband, a Boston Brahmin, she transformed into Mrs. Richard Rogers Peabody in 1915. Crosby's early life thus followed the traditional path for women: marriage, two children, even living with her in-laws while Dick fought in World War I. (7) But her autobiography recognizes the tension between this scripted social role and her own desires. This marriage, she writes, "was a boy-and-girl affair" and "there was no time to weld my own life together" (The Passionate Years 67, 66). Her first step toward independence, an attempt at a silent movie career, is marked by a name change: "Valerie Marno" could do things that Boston's Mrs. Richard Rogers Peabody could not.
But it was her next name change that signaled the transformative shift for Crosby. Meeting Harry Crosby, seven years her junior, she shocked Boston society by divorcing Dick Peabody, marrying Harry, and moving to Paris. While still defining herself in relation to men and heterosexuality, Crosby actively sought to shift her identity. She was escaping what Harry described in his diaries as "the horrors of Boston and particularly of Boston virgins who are brought up among sexless surroundings, who wear canvas-drawers and flat-heeled shoes and tortoiseshell glasses and who, once they are married, bear a child punctually every nine months for five or six years and then retire to end their days at the Chilton Club" (46). Crosby saw her marriage to Harry as a definitive and rebellious act: "I became a rebel when I married Harry. By that act of emancipation and by the conquest of desire over obedience, opposing the code of a conformist upbringing, I, of my own volition, entered into a life of adventure" (The Passionate Years 101). In this retelling, Crosby uses her autobiography to emphasize her agency, shaping her past as a heroic act against the conforming forces that would stifle a modern woman. Like other expatriates, she exchanged the limitations of puritanical American society for the freedom of Paris.
As a sign of this escape, and of her new identity as an artist and writer, Mary/Polly/Valerie changed her name to Caresse. This change served both a practical and a symbolic purpose. Guided by an artistic and romantic sensibility, she considered many names that would create a visual cross with "Harry" for the colophon design of her 1925 volume of poetry, Crosses of Gold. The change was also a form of self-fashioning, discarding her identity as a Boston blue-blood and entering the bohemian lifestyle of the artist. But perhaps most important, the chosen name carries connotations of extreme femininity, both soft and sensual. This reading is supported by the response from Boston relatives, who were shocked and likened the name to "undressing in public" (The Passionate Years 135). Read as either a noun or a verb, "caress" foregrounds femininity and sexuality and Crosby's active role in claiming both. This identity rejects the role of the Boston matron described by Harry but continues to operate within a dual-gender system.
This assumption of a feminine name corresponds to Crosby's chosen appearance. Often described as beautiful and soft, she paid careful attention to image. The physical body is inherent to a sense of psychic identity, serving as a social marker (codified and constructed by adornment), communication marker (read as sign/text through clothing and gesture), and material embodiment (lived experience mediated through physical body as limiting medium). Description of clothing plays a substantial role in her autobiography. Indeed, Crosby uses material details of sartorial splendor to mark events. For instance, she opens her memoir by remembering the day she was "born to myself" and remembers "too, how I looked the day I was born. I wore a corded cream silk bonnet edged round with swansdown and my cheeks were tight and rosy" (The Passionate Years 3). She describes details of her boarding school uniform, prom dress, debutante gown made in Paris, wedding dress, and other costumes (The Passionate Years 39, 44, 51-52, 65). This attention to fashion and its associated occasions, such as being presented at court, marks both gender and class. Photographs serve as evidence supporting contemporary descriptions of Crosby as a woman who maintained a feminine appearance. (8) Her dark hair cut in a fashionable bob, she appears in photos from the 1920s in the latest styles from hat to hemline. In photographs with Harry, she is often hanging on his arm, face in profile as she gazes at him while he stares into the camera. Thus visually she presented an identity in line with the feminine--beautiful and stylish, laughing and smiling, deferential to her man, but undeniably modern.
By embracing a feminine appearance, she communicated to others a nonthreatening and heterosexual identity, as opposed to, for instance, the "masculine" appearance of Gertrude Stein, Romaine Brooks, and Nancy Cunard. But beneath Crosby's feminine facade ran the thread of a hard-nosed entrepreneurial spirit. Although financially secure, Crosby was businesslike in seeking ways to use her appearance and experience. For instance, uncomfortable wearing corsets for three balls a night during her debut season, she invented the brassiere by stitching handkerchiefs and ribbon together. After acquiring a patent she began a small manufacturing "sweat shop" in secret, "owing to undue prejudice about what young ladies could or could not do to turn a longed-for penny" (The Passionate Years 63). The short-lived venture into silent movies was another attempt at economic independence: "To be quite independent I naively decided to support myself and my children by acting for the screen, so, bobbing my hair, I packed off to New York" (The Passionate Years 87). Cutting her hair short was a sign of adopting the "modern woman" spirit of the period, and the visual medium of silent movies seemed tailor made for capitalizing on her physical appearance. Indeed, she writes, "I felt my fortune was in my pocket" (The Passionate Years 90). True to the social limitations placed on women, however, it was her real life role as mother that kept that pocket empty: Crosby's potential career was cut short when her daughter fell ill and she was called home to care for her.
Crosby's lived experience was mediated through this traditionally feminine and beautiful body, and she used this allure to her advantage. In her autobiography she is very aware of the power of her sexuality, as when she writes of the 1927 Quatre Arts Ball. Joining other women dressed in "ochre paint and fabulous headdresses" and "naked to the navels," Crosby led her float to win first prize. "My breasts helped," she writes knowingly (The Passionate Years 131-32). While her looks garnered attention and praise, they overshadowed her many other talents. Even biographer Anne Conover focuses on Crosby's appearance, describing "the feline grace of those racy legs, the well-rounded derriere" that "bewitched lovers" and noting her "petite" body, "pert face," and flair for fashion (Caresse Crosby xi). Although Crosby may be remembered for her costumes and her breasts, she is remembered. Crosby's very public performance of a sexualized female body capitalized on her appeal to heterosexual men and helped her gain access in the literary world.
This femininity was also performed in Crosby's six slender volumes of poetry, published from 1925 to 1931. (9) Indeed, it was her highly gendered public image that Crosby credits with earning her second collection publication from a major press. As she tells the story in The Passionate Years, she was encouraged to send Graven Images "to Houghton Mifflin in Boston--they have just lost Amy Lowell." When she modestly protested, "But I'm not in her class," she was told, "You're a lady poet from Boston" and "that's a beginning" (213). This designation as a "lady poet" has led to Crosby's critical dismissal, her work being deemed "sentimental" rather than literary. (10) Although she signed the "Revolution of the Word" manifesto in the June 1929 transition, Crosby's own writing does not reflect an experimental philosophy of fragmentation, alienation, paradox, or dehumanization. Her poetry does not fit these criteria, which frequently privilege the work and aesthetic of male modernists.
Crosby preferred to use poetry as a medium for emotional expression. Many of her poems express love for her husband or provide optimistic observations of the natural world. Some of this work expresses a naivete mirrored by simplistic language and rhyme choices, such as this stanza from "Cross-Roads" in her first collection, Crosses of Gold:
I wander from the pathway I frolic all along, My lap I fill with daffodils My heart I fill with song. (4-5)
This poem reveals what Crosby laughingly called her tendency to rhyme "dove with love" (The Passionate Years 213), an inclination that corresponded to a notion of feminine poetry, sentiment expressed in genteel rhyme. But other poems in this same collection demonstrate a more mature use of language to express adult romantic and sexual love. Crosby's sensual nature is revealed in "Etrient," a poem with a mirrored stanza scheme. The final two stanzas use an intensity of images of the sexualized body to build to a climax and release:
And the notes insistent, echo through me As your touch, more vibrant, wakes my form. With closed eyes I feel your kiss, enraptured, Feel it gather violence like a storm. Till my thoughts fly foaming on the whirlwind That grown savage rages o'er my head, And exultantly I cling, embrace you-- Limb to limb, Our flaming bodies wed. (57-58)
Fire and flame signify sexual desire in Crosby's verse, such as in the poem "Firelight," which describes how her lover's "ivory body blushes" on the rug before the fireplace (54). This frank sensuality enacts the sexualized feminine: "caress" is, after all, not just a soft sound but an intimate physical touch. Using a conventional trope--fire--to describe sexual desire, Crosby uses stereotype as "cultural shorthand," creating an immediate emotional association with the reader. As Jane Tompkins has argued, the "familiarity and typicality [of the tropes], rather than making them bankrupt or stale, are the basis of their effectiveness as integers in a social equation" (xvi). By using more conventional images, Crosby could write of sexual passion and release, speaking openly of modern female sexual desire. Her poetry thus engages with the modernist exploration of sexuality and the body without risking the charge of obscenity that plagued Joyce and others.
Crosby was aware of poetic developments and incorporated new trends into her work while retaining a focus on the personal and emotional. Painted Shores, published in 1927, reveals this growth, as in the reference to Ezra Pound's central images from "In a Station of the Metro" (1913) in her "Pier 53":
Crowding and swayed like mobs upon the screen There are strange faces strewn upon the docks, White petals, and impervious ticking clocks That count the seconds gone, and mouthe and stare-- I do not think that I will turn or care-- My heart is stretched to fear the foghorns scream. (np)
Here Pound's Imagistic juxtaposition is joined to the images of the cinema screen and a mechanical clock, adding a sense of alienation to explain the narrator's fear. Whereas Pound's poem is impressionistic, Crosby's is personal. Crosby continues to use mechanistic images to expand her twin themes of love and pain in the volume, creating a sense of coherence among the poems with the repeated image of a boat journey and the repetition of start and end lines. She further develops the trope of modern female sexuality and technology expressed here in her other work as well. For instance, her unpublished short story "Tyrolean Holiday" celebrates the body and the machine:
"My God, it's marvelous to have a body like mine," she thought. "It works so well, it looks so divine, it smells so deliciously." She thrust a sentient nose into a hollow armpit. "And it is exciting to live in, like owning the speediest motor-boat, or the fastest horse, or the latest aeroplane, and knowing just how to manage it, a light hand here, a pedal there, and then, the question of fuel," she mused on, "to have learned just what to give it and when; to believe in wine as the earth believes in rain or the engine in oil." (6)
These works show an affinity for the Futurist principles of machines and speed, which are used to explore the potential power of an embodied female sexuality.
In Poems for Harry Crosby, written after her husband's suicide and published in 1931, Crosby seems to prefigure Edith Sitwell's advice that "any woman learning to write, if she is going to be any good at all, would, until she had made a technique for herself (and one has to forge it for oneself, there is no help to be got) write in as hard and glittering a manner as possible, and with as strange images as possible--strange, but believed in" (116). Darker in tone and freed from strict rhymes, these poems use hard machine images to create conflict with the subject of emotion. For instance, in "Debris," Harry's life is a "swift propeller" of steel and blood: "And from your throat / My scarf in flames across the fuselage" (25). Rather than the erotic images of flame, Crosby turns to an odd merging of flesh and metal that invokes the cold perception of love and loss as an emotional surgery:
Each halting turn of silver hip Sends pinnacles to dip beneath the skin. Through hidden sensepaths pine-trees call to prayer, Blue mask of shade, and snow cold rooms of memory Wherein to kneel with every lip reopening While down from heaven drooms the ice Unloosed and uncontrolled-- Slithers the itching paint away Shrives clean the hair And clings as sharp and caged As glaze on cuticle. Now for the tick of revelation While still our gloveless hands Drag chattering at the heart But wherefore this? Pain only enters. Centre point Lacuna (17)
From easy end rhymes and natural images to a cold, free-verse expression of loss, Crosby's work was inflected by a modernist aesthetic even as it clung to an intimate and emotional sensibility.
Crosby's work was well received by many of her peers, but it was read as expressions of an essential feminine nature. Hart Crane wrote to Crosby in 1930, "Your poems are lovely! They have an entirely different quality than Harry's, more feminine, but verbally more complex and also more integrated" (Letter, 19 Apr. 1930). Two years later, in response to her Poems for Harry, he wrote, "The whole collection achieves a power in repose, a renunciation-plus, that is very rare. I hope you are writing more and more, Caresse; for the sheer vision of your nature deserves an ever-branching extension and expression. You really come up to the great theme of Love and Tragedy as very few women can, at least in word" (Letter, 31 Mar. 1932). Crane is flattering, but his last remark clarifies that he sees her as a "woman" poet, not as a poet. Her early use of regular meter and celebration of sexual love was cast as "charming" and feminine (Kahn and Rood 88). Friend Kay Boyle told Crosby, "Everything you write has that almost distressingly feminine and alluring you" (qtd. in Conover, Caresse Crosby 14). The personal nature of her verse is viewed as an extension of a pleasant and emotional woman. Crosby's writing enacts both the sweet smelling feminine and the sexual promise of womanhood, a double faced persona at once comforting and tantalizing, but never threatening to masculinity nor to the province of modernist (read male) poets.
Crosby's contributions to publishing were similarly eased and abridged by her performance of femininity. Like Sylvia Beach, whose Shakespeare and Company bookstore is celebrated as a gathering place for modernist artists (indeed, the Crosbys met Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Jolas there), the various homes of Caresse Crosby collected diverse guests from both literary and visual arts circles. In Paris and their country estate, Moulin du Soleil, guests D. H. Lawrence, Robert McAlmon, Archibald MacLeish, Salvador Dali, and others interacted. By performing the role of hostess, Crosby introduced artists and writers to each other, weaving the web of modernist associations, and developed both personal and business relationships with Kay Boyle, Hart Crane, and others. Without such a space for communication it is questionable whether the period would have been as productive. Another friend and guest, Anais Nin, wrote, "The life of certain women dresses them in anecdotes which become more visible than fur coats or silk dresses. Stories surround Caresse like a perfume, a necklace, a feather" (15). But these stories, so perfectly described here in terms of feminine bric-a-brac, also occlude the literary legacy she left. Remembering her only as a hostess undermines her credibility as a considerable figure in the literary world. Rather, the role of hostess aided her effectiveness as a publisher by providing opportunity to mix social skill and business sense. Her skill in creating a welcoming domestic space enhanced her ability to succeed in the professional space of publishing. For instance, Crosby provided a place in her home for Crane to work on The Bridge, gave him emotional and financial support, and published a limited edition of the finished work. As her autobiography shows, she did this not only out of friendship, but also through an astute sense of the value of Crane's work. After he, while drunk, damaged a room at her home, she wrote, "That I forgave him sufficiently to agree to publish The Bridge shows that my good manners as a hostess did not fail me--nor my good sense as a publisher" (The Passionate Years 238). Too often this good sense is ignored in favor of the sensational stories. (11)
In co-founding the Black Sun Press with her husband, and in creating the Crosby Continental Editions after Harry's death, Caresse Crosby demonstrated two important visions of the role of the small press. The Black Sun Press, publishing mainly from 1927 to 1936, issued over sixty works, nearly three times as many works as any other comparable press. (12) Caresse and Harry Crosby funded the Press with their own money, designed their lavish limited editions, and, in a few cases, illustrated them as well, "thus making every aspect of the book a personal expression" (Bell 4). They began by printing their own writing but soon moved into designing sumptuous limited editions of reprints such as Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher," illustrated by the Hungarian artist Alastair; with it they "broke into the English and American markets" (The Passionate Years 149). The Black Sun Press also published editions of many contemporary modernist writers, including D. H. Lawrence (The Escaped Cock, Sun); Archibald MacLeish (New Found Land, Einstein); James Joyce (Tales of Shem and Shaun, James Joyce's Collected Poems); and Ezra Pound (Imaginary Letters). The Press played a role in supporting struggling artists by publishing unknown authors such as Kay Boyle, whose first work, Short Stories, was printed in 1929. The Black Sun edition "helped her to get recognition from more commercial publishers," according to friend and fellow writer Robert McAlmon (274). The Press also aided more established writers such as Archibald MacLeish by producing expensive limited editions of works scheduled for commercial publication at a later date.
Despite evidence of her serious involvement in the Press, discussions of Crosby's role have been skewed to reflect gender stereotypes. Crosby fits into the pattern recognized by Jayne E. Marek: "Discussions of women's work are usually predicated upon the work of associated men, or upon the assumption that women's accomplishments occurred in spite of their personalities rather than because of them" (9). For instance, Malcolm Cowley remembered Crosby as "not so much an artist herself as she has always been the hostess and befriender and publisher of artists" ("The Last of the Lost Generation" 77). (13) Even her biographer undermines Crosby's achievements by placing them in an essentialized frame. Conover claims, "Caresse was the driving force behind the Press, with an uncanny knack of picking winners among the vast smorgasbord of unknown writers in Paris." She continues, "She had a rare gift for nurturing the poets, painters, and novelists who came, seeking recognition, tea, and sympathy. To those who drank from her cup, Caresse was the Life Force" (Caresse Crosby 16). Characterizing Crosby as the mythical feminine principle elides her more crucial role in the Press, the day-to-day running of a business, the inner drive to create art. Her personal style and investment in relationships merged with her business sense and vision as a publisher.
Crosby's feminine performance has created confusion for critics examining her role at the Black Sun Press, but evidence suggests that she played a serious professional part. Wolff writes that "Harry and Caresse chose the spacings, margins and typeface.... Harry designed the bindings, boxes and ribbons in expensive materials.... As time passed Harry alone came to select the titles the Press would publish; Caresse would edit them, and usually perform the typographical design" (191). But Sy M. Kahn and Karen L. Rood state, "[T]hough Harry Crosby published more of his own poetry than Caresse Crosby did during their Paris years, she was more active in the everyday business of the Black Sun Press" (88). While Harry was busy earning a reputation for eccentricity and decadence, Caresse was engrossed in the business of operating a small private press. Their respective memoirs reflect this divergent focus. Harry provides relatively few references to the Press, and most of these depict a joint endeavor, as in "our Black Sun Press." Harry was active in soliciting material from D. H. Lawrence and mentions working with James Joyce on The Tales of Shem and Shaun in 1929; otherwise, he gives brief notice to the Press. He often mentions Caresse soliciting and editing material, and in 1929, when the Press "is editing six books all at the same time," he writes that this "makes things too complicated and much too much work for Caresse" (Shadows of the Sun 276). Even Cowley noted that Caresse Crosby did "most of the work" of the Black Sun Press ("The Last of the Lost Generation" 77).
Caresse Crosby was an active and knowledgeable presence in this process. Her knowledge of publishing and her aesthetic sensibilities are evident in her discussion of the work of the Press in her autobiography. Her understanding of and fascination with the technical details of publishing can be found intermingled with the social and fashion details in The Passionate Years, as when she describes the inking process for the 1929 edition of Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne: "The text was in bistre but the titles and decorations, by Polia [Chentoff], in apple green. In order to print the green the sheets had to be damp, so first we ran the bistre, then dunked them and ran them through again for a second colour impression" (The Passionate Years 274).
Similarly, she describes the afternoon D. H. Lawrence's manuscript arrived: "That very afternoon the type was chorusing up the forms, the Holland van Gelder paper samples being pored over for texture. It was a Caslon job with margins as wide as a faire-part, the title in sunburnt red" (The Passionate Years 219). The details, mixed as they are with social news, and in the same chatty tone and descriptive language, shape the reader's reaction by downplaying Crosby's productive work, paralleling it with her domestic life. But the Press mainly became known for this aesthetic sensibility. As Kahn and Rood note, "Black Sun books were to achieve a reputation not only for the excellence of their contents but also for their physical appearance" (86). Crosby is self-effacing about her own talents in her autobiography, but careful reading reveals her insight and talent. Applying her earlier training as a sculptor to the book form, Crosby developed a theory of typography: "Typography is largely a matter of spacing and a correct mathematical margin. Like sculpture, it is the space that surrounds the object which gives it its balance--these things and many others I learned that year" (The Passionate Years 146). She designed many of the deluxe editions, deciding upon typeface, paper, layout and binding, and also provided illustrations.
Beyond her eye for beauty, Crosby also contributed the keen business sense necessary for the Press's success. Aware of the profit to be earned by the controversy and excitement over Joyce's Ulysses, Crosby explains, "[W]e yearned for a piece of the rich Irish cake then baking on the Paris fire" (The Passionate Years 181). This domestic metaphor is indicative of the style in which she wrote about her business life, a decidedly feminine choice that overlays her knowledge of the marketplace. She solicited manuscripts by directly approaching authors and engaged in extended correspondence with Lawrence, Joyce, Crane, Pound, and Hemingway. (14) Indeed, these letters often reveal a more assertive style than is apparent in her autobiography. Her outgoing, feminine persona aided her in this work by establishing the necessary networks and giving her a breezy social style helpful in approaching avant-garde artists. For example, she asked Picasso for a portrait of Joyce and when he refused found the abstract sculptor Brancusi, whose simple three-line portrait of the author quickly gained recognition.
Her predominant role in the Press is confirmed by her ability to continue production after the death of her husband in 1929. During the 1930s, her publishing philosophy evolved to reflect the economic depression. No longer were the times right for lavish limited editions, expensive works of art celebrating the writing they contained. Crosby created Crosby Continental Editions in 1930 to serve a more political and social purpose that accommodated the needs of the changing time. Although Crosby solicited advice from Jacques Porel, Kay Boyle, and Ezra Pound to make up for her lack of formal education, she was firmly in charge of Crosby Continental Editions. Her encounter with Pound provides an example. While Conover claims that Crosby depended on Pound's "critical acumen," Crosby's actions and correspondence show that she actually followed very little advice. Pound himself realized this, writing sarcastically in 1932, "As you have not made a million neglecting my advice, why not try to follow it for a change???" (Conover, "Ezra Pound" 113,117).
In the introduction to the new imprint's first publication, Ernest Hemingway's The Torrents of Spring, Crosby explained, "I am going to publish books that I like, that have merit and that interest or amuse me personally.... Cheap editions in English of the masterpieces of the modern world, books that will express the genius of every country in the language we all understand, at a price we all can afford" ("Open" vi). This statement reiterates Crosby's strong persona: she is at once guided by a desire to please herself, a "feminine" drive for amusement, and simultaneously embarking on an experimental business venture. A reversal of her earlier work creating lavish limited editions beyond the reach of the masses, Crosby is now guided by a firm commitment to producing reprints of quality literature at a cost that would make them readily available. This meant producing paperback books, a rarity at the time, and putting her small press in direct competition with a large and established commercial press. She searched for "lovely books" by contemporary authors and produced reprints of avant-garde works by Kay Boyle, Dorothy Parker, William Faulkner, Robert McAlmon, and Ernest Hemingway, as well as "the best of the French" (The Passionate Years 265-66). Unfortunately, her innovation was not only ahead of other publishers but also "twenty years ahead of the market" (The Passionate Years 315). Unable to compete with the larger commercial presses, the Crosby Continental Editions proved unprofitable and the venture was short lived. Characteristically, she writes of the experience with a light and joyous tone, saying, "[T]he C. C. E. took a big loss at the end of the year, and by 1935, had quite eaten itself up--but it brought me back onto the literary scene not with a whimper but a bang!" (The Passionate Years 266). She was planning to publish Vita Sackville-West, Franz Kafka, John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, and Katherine Mansfield when her funds ran out. This list of respected authors shows a cultivated taste in avant-garde writing and a desire to publish a diverse group of experimental writers for the masses. Fueled by a clear and adaptable theory for her Press, Crosby dealt with all the problems presented to the small publisher. For over eight years, she overcame distribution problems, having only a small staff, the instability of the market, and the press's lack of profits.
The Crosby Continental Editions contributed to modernism by making reprints of important texts available to a wider public, thus giving the authors additional exposure. In an advertising blurb for the 1955 edition of The Passionate Years, Louis Bromfield notes, "Caresse Crosby is doing a work for which we should all, readers and writers alike, be grateful and which is certain to make her name as well known with future generations as those of the list of writers she has chosen to publish" (355). This prophecy proved false: the authors published by Crosby Continental Editions are celebrated by modernism, but Crosby remains a footnote. Anais Nin once wrote of Crosby, "She trails behind her, like the plume of a peacock, a fabulous legend." This legend is replete with highly coded images of femininity, of a woman who said "YES" to life, to art, to risk, and to love (Nin 15). Through her feminine legend, Crosby appeared to her contemporaries as an ephemeral object of beauty. Her feminine performance, flirtatiousness, "magnetic personality" (Moore 59), and sexuality have caused her to be labeled as only a "catalyst" (Stulhman 40), a "dilettante" (Rodman 58), and an eccentric socialite. However, this unthreatening identity allowed her to network with important writers and artists, and these connections (and her wealth) put her in a unique position to enter publishing. To this extent, her feminine performance provided Crosby with a level of freedom and subversive power that allowed her to enter the public sphere as an artistic producer. But it also wrote her into literary history in such a way that her valuable contributions became invisible. We are more likely to remember those women who "openly flouted male expectations," such as Gertrude Stein and Margaret Anderson (Marek 18). This is evident even in the obituaries announcing her death in 1970, which emphasized her invention and patenting of the wireless brassiere and ignored her accomplishments as a publisher and later a political activist for international peace.
The power and danger of Crosby's use of a stereotypical femininity, its attributes of beauty, sexuality, and nurturance, are perhaps especially timely now in the midst of Third Wave Feminism. The phenomenon of "Girlie" feminism "celebrates the 'accoutrements' of traditional 'femininity' not only to abjure patriarchal definitions of femininity, but to challenge the 'inflexibility' of second wave identity politics" (Munford 148). A new generation of women and men are exploring gender performance, weighing social mandates of appearance and behavior against personal identity. "For Girlie girls, 'femininity' is not opposed to feminism, but is positioned as central to a politics of agency, confidence, and resistance" (Munford 148). Crosby's feminine performance was central to her self-fashioned identity as a woman, writer, and publisher. This enactment of the feminine claims cultural space by illustrating that to be powerful women do not have to "act like men," and such an enactment may allow women to have it all--career, sexuality, family, and the expression of a "feminine" appearance. But does this cultural space yet exist? What we can learn from the story of Caresse Crosby is that there is a real danger to enacting an ultrafeminine persona in a society that privileges the masculine. Ultimately, Crosby's legacy should be not her feminine legend but the textual publications she left to literary history.
Thanks to Nick Capo, Caryn Riswold, Lisa Udel, Almut Spalding, Kelly Dagan, Jennifer Brown, Margaret Marek, Sandra Spanier, and the staff and readers of Legacy for their comments on the many incarnations of this work, and to Diane Worrell (Photographs Librarian) and Katharine Salzmann (Manuscripts Curator), for their help with the Caresse Crosby Collection (Special Collections Research Center, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University Carbondale).
1. As Marc Dolan has noted, the term "lost generation" has been understood as "a literal group of coevals (women and men born at approximately the same time); a specific cultural subset of that demographic grouping; a theory of how American arts, letters, and culture evolved in the years following World War I; and a complex of mythic tropes, characters, and settings that enshrined the memory of an early twentieth century that almost certainly never existed" (9).
2. In April 1931, William Leeds of the Universal Wire Service referred to Crosby as "herself a poem" (qtd. in Conover, Caresse Crosby 65). Existing work on Crosby is largely biographical. See Broe, Carson, and Conover. Gessel provides a nuanced reading of Crosby's autobiography, The Passionate Years.
3. Elliott and Wallace note, "Within the last decade, there has emerged a second generation of 'modernist' critics which has been far less interested in sketching in the broad outlines of a modernist movement; instead, they want to expose the diversity within 'modernism' and to explore 'modernism's' institutional alliances and strategies" (6). On modernism and gender, see Armstrong, Benstock, DeKoven, Schenk, and Scott.
4. For instance, see Doan on modernist cross-dressing.
5. This quotation is also found on an undated letter, filed with 1929 correspondence, from Harry to Caresse (Caresse Crosby Collection, Box 43, Folder 1. Special Collections Research Center, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University Carbondale).
6. These stereotypes of femininity are, of course, inflected by race and class. Crosby enjoyed the privilege of both race and class, and these factors provided access and means without which the Crosbys could not have financed a press. With her first marriage, she entered the elite society of Boston; with her second marriage to Harry Crosby, she enjoyed a bohemian expatriate lifestyle financed by the Crosby fortune. The Crosby's entree into Paris literary society was eased by Harry's cousin Walter Berry, a respected man in Parisian literary circles and friend to Edith Wharton, Henry James, and Marcel Proust.
7. In contrast to Caresse Crosby, Harry Crosby has been interpreted by Cowley as iconic of the entire generation: separation from home, service in the ambulance corps, exile in France, a bohemian lifestyle, escape from society, defense of individuality, and demoralization (Exile's Return 247). The fragmentary, allusive, seemingly coded writing matches a modernist style of fragmentation (Dolan 54). Harry's life performance fits with the proto-modernist aesthetic of dynamism, the "violently radical ... rejection of the social order as a whole" (Anderson 105). But it is important to remember that this "representative" life and the ensuing aesthetic characteristics are not gender neutral and therefore not truly representative.
8. Photographic evidence can be found in The Passionate Years; Harry's diary, Shadows of the Sun; Wolff; and in the Caresse Crosby Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
9. Graven Images was the only book by either Crosby not published first by their own press. On a few occasions, Caresse Crosby was published in little magazines; for example, transition first published her long poem "The Stranger" (Nov. 1929).
10. Clark has demonstrated this process of dismissal with other modernists. Other critics continue to ask valuable questions, such as Schenk's query "that the seemingly genteel, conservative poetics of women poets whose obscurity even feminists have overlooked might pitch a more radical politics than we had considered possible" (231).
11. Scott has noted the tendency of critics to "sensationalize the biography of women writers rather than to explore their works with care" (11).
12. For a comprehensive history of the Black Sun Press and other small presses of the period, see Ford. See also Minkoff.
13. See also Wolff, Cody, and Carpenter for this treatment.
14. Crosby gathered over ninety letters for a book prospectus entitled "Letters to the Editor." See Caresse Crosby Collection, Box 5, Folders 4-6. Special Collections Research Center, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
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BETH WIDMAIER CAPO
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|Author:||Capo, Beth Widmaier|
|Publication:||Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2006|
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